The gargantuan Summer Palace, 12km from downtown Beijing, is up there with the Great Wall and the Forbidden City as a must-visit destination and was designated as a World Heritage-listed site in 1998. Set aside a day to escape the city and explore the 700-acre royal park with palaces, pagodas, gardens and temples all set on Kunming Lake.
The Summer Palace was a royal retreat commissioned by Emperor Qianlong for his mother's 60th birthday in 1750. The palace was vandalised by Anglo-French troops during the Second Opium War in 1860, and Empress Dowager Cixi used money designated for the navy to refit the site in 1888. She eventually moved the seat of government from the Forbidden City to the Summer Palace where she controlled China until her death in 1908.
A study in opulence, while the contemporary China languished, the grounds consist mainly of the manmade Kunming Lake. The excavated dirt from the lake was used to construct Longevity Hill which hosts such evocatively titled pagodas and temples as Tower of the Fragrance of Buddha, Glazed Tile Pagoda and the Hall that Dispels Clouds. In winter, you can skate on the ice of Kunming Lake or travel to the Summer Palace by boat in the warmer months – boats leave from Beijing Zoo or near the Millenium Monument in summer. At the north end of the lake you'll find a Marble Boat structure which Cixi commissioned with the Chinese navy's misappropriated money. From the Marble Boat, follow the Long Corridor to the Hall of Joyful Longevity and take in the painted ceiling with scenes from nature and myths. The Hall of Benevolent Longevity was used to receive and entertain dignitaries.
The impressive grounds are straight from a Chinese countryside painting with graceful willow trees and beautiful bridges. The site offers the opportunity for heart-pumping walks or hire a pedal boat to traverse the lake in the summer months. To visit the Summer Palace, the closest metro stations are Xiyuan or Beigongmen (North Palace Gate) stations which access different parts of the park. A combination admission to all sites within the Summer Palace is CNY60 from April to October and CNY50 from November to April.